Tuesday 14 February 2023

Random thoughts


Random thoughts

Random thoughts flit in and out of my brain. It’s not always possible to know what prompts them and sometimes they take me on ‘voyages of discovery and other clichés.’

Recently, I have been thinking about sailors, that is, Royal Navy sailors. Obviously the trigger for that was my recent blog about sailing. I wondered why sailors were referred to as matelots.

Why would a French name be assigned to a naval rating? Maybe it was a hangover from when Calais belonged to England, in the sixteenth century. The English King Edward III captured Calais in 1347. It was returned to France in 1558.

I looked it up. Matelot is a Middle French slang word meaning sailor. Middle French covers the period from the 14th to 16th centuries. It came into use in the Royal Navy about 1847, so, nothing to do with the possession of Calais!

Another common term for a naval rating is Tar, or Jack Tar. It seemed logical to suppose that this name was applied because of the necessity of tarring a ship to waterproof it. Anyone involved in this messy task would soon be covered in the sticky, pungent coating.

I looked it up. I was wrong again. Apparently, it is thought to refer to the tarpaulins sailors wore. Tarpaulins were a type of strong canvas containing tar to make them waterproof. ‘Jack Tar’ to describe a sailor was first used in 1781 by George Parker, possibly Admiral Sir George Parker.

People born in Swansea in the UK have often been called Jacks or Swansea Jacks. Swansea people had a reputation for being skilled sailors and were much sought after for recruitment to the navy.

The official march of the Royal Navy, ‘Heart of Oak’, has a line which says, ‘Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men’.

John was the commonest boy’s name in England in the 16th century.  Jack is a diminutive of John. An interesting article from ‘Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources’describes how the nickname for John developed.

Jack was a common name applied to any man and is still in use in many phrases today, as in Jack of all trades, every man Jack, Jack of both sides, Jack the lad, Before you can say Jack Robinson, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, I’m all right, Jack (pull up the ladder)

The infamous Whitechapel murders of the 1880s were not committed by a man called Jack the Ripper. In the twenty-first century a more accurate name for him would have been ‘Anyman the Ripper’.

From this point, I started thinking about Jack in children’s literature, in particular nursery rhymes. Jack and Jill, Jack be nimble, Jack Sprat, Little Jack Horner are all rhymes that have been sung and recited to small children, who respond to the rhymes with delight, in the process building a sense of rhythm and rhyming and developing their vocabulary in a most pleasurable way.

Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack Frost are well-loved children’s stories. This is the house that Jack built is a wonderful cumulative story that children love to join in with great enthusiasm.



  1. It may be American but if you are annoyed you can be 'pretty jacked off', and of course there is another meaning to the same combination of words.

    I expect I'll be thinking about the name Jack all day today. Thanks for that.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post today. I read it to my husband who was US Navy but assigned to the Royal Navy for two years, and consequently we met. Wonderful history here, thank you so much!

  3. That's an interesting trip your mind took us on.

  4. Hi Janice - I love coming across original names and their origins - my Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is my go to reference book ... I have a 1960s version ... cheers Hilary

    1. I like interesting words. Like you, I have a Brewer's Dictionary and also a Dictionary of Slang.


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